Gussie Alexander: Human hurricane turns gentleman

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 24, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

OCEAN CITY -- Coming out of Fager's Island Restaurant, where everybody's helping God conduct the setting of the sun with their daily rendition of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, Gussie Alexander slides contentedly behind the wheel of his big red Cadillac and points it toward home, toward his sunken living room, toward his giant TV screens and his big CD collection and the books he's discovered in the autumn of his years, and toward the entire good life awaiting him.

Gussie? Sitting in a living room and watching a television set? The legendary Gussie, who had such a hurricane of a life back in Baltimore, now a retired gentleman by the sea?

"Yeah," he says, pulling the Cadillac onto Ocean Highway, "I'm just laying on the beach and looking at the pretty girls."

If living well is the best revenge, then somebody should thrust Gussie's hands into the air, like a heavyweight who's just won by TKO, and declare him champ for his age, which is 67, and his weight, which is indeterminate but pretty sleek since he gave up all alcohol in favor of personal longevity.

Still, it's hard to picture Gussie on automatic pilot. This is a guy who made frantic living an art form. Go back to Eastern Avenue and Oldham Street, where Gussie and Al Isella had Gussie's Downbeat from the mid-'50s to the mid-'60s, or Gussie running his Downtown Club at Cathedral and Chase around 1970, or Gussie at Sweeney's up on Greenmount Avenue after that, where his job was to. . .

"My job," he explains, with a twinkle in his eye, "was to walk in."

That's all. He was just Gussie, around whom a good time was always had. Like when he had the Downtown Club, and the baseball guys were haunting the place, those like Jim Gentile and Milt Pappas and Mickey Mantle and Denny McLaine.

Or the glory days at the Downbeat, when all the old Colts, guys like Unitas and Marchetti and Moore and Donovan, the ones who forged a whole lifestyle around here, would come in and stay until dawn was breaking.

"Can we keep the place open a little late?" Gussie asked the police lieutenant who happened to drop in one night approaching official city curfew.

"Why ask me?" the lieutenant sighed. "You're gonna stay open whatever I tell you."

Well, yeah. The Downbeat was a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Located directly beneath a Chinese laundry, and subject to various overhead leaks, it was a long, narrow strip designed to hold 50 people, tops, but frequently held twice that many and sometimes, miraculously, a lot more.

You could snack on dill pickles and hard boiled eggs for a nickel apiece, or play the pinball machines unless guys in a fight broke them, or watch the bookmakers drift in to quietly settle up, or talk to the jockeys from Pimlico, or be very polite to the neighborhood tough guys like Gilbert Bowen and John the Animal.

For Gussie, it was heaven. He'd grown up in Highlandtown, hustling in odd ways. How odd? Well, he'd sell his blood, or his clothes, for money to go to the racetrack. How odd? He sold formal suits to undertakers, for use by the dearly departed. If the suits didn't fit quite right, they'd just open up the back, and who was to complain?

Gussie served in World War II and then Korea and Vietnam. Won a couple of Silver Stars in Korea, but had a record somewhat mixed, owing to a beef with an officer. Wound up in the stockade, where everybody played volleyball and pinochle.

When they came to release him, Gussie declared, "Wait a minute, we got it too good in here. I don't want to leave."

When he returned to civilian life, the club years beckoned. Nights at the Downbeat were a blur. Those who were there still talk of various Colts, defying bed check during summer training camps, climbing down rain spouts to sneak down to East Baltimore.

"Good years," Gussie says now, parking his car by his ranch-style house near Ocean Highway. Inside are old photos: Gussie in Korea with some orphan kids; Gussie with old sporting pals from East Baltimore.

They're reminders of the fast-lane time of his life, before he became a gentleman by the sea, singing the sun to sleep out at Fager's Island, watching the pretty ladies on the beach, driving his big Cadillac.

If living well is the best revenge, Gussie's cornered the market on heaven.

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